Food, good vibes, and starter cultures were bubbling up aplenty at our very first event at Easter House. Tara Whitsitt and her rolling educational endeavor, Fermentation on Wheels, drew about 30 people, including a four-month old baby and two reporters. An old friend of mine came up from the Columbus area. And a new old friend, Annette, drove down from North Canton, near Akron, a nearly three-hour trip!
"It gave me an excuse to take a day off of work," Annette told me. I adored her instantly.
Annette has a sister and brother-in-law in Ada, so there were more reasons for her to come than just a delicious potluck dinner, but still. That was pretty cool. And her sis and brother-in-law were equally charming, muscling Mark and I out of the kitchen at clean-up time.
"We have big family functions, we're good at this," they said. They weren't lying. The dishwasher, when I peeked inside it that night, held only glassware and silverware. The plates, bowls and cups were all washed and dried and neatly stacked on the counter.
Cool, too, was the wide variety of people interested in or already deeply involved with fermented foods. Lisa from Harrod has been growing and preserving her own food since one of her children got sick and found health through forgoing all processed food. Ellen from Bluffton started making her own kimchi upon the urging of her son, who makes lovely earthenware crocks for the traditional Korean fermented cabbage dish. My rediscovered high school friend, Gail, makes yogurt and brought some so I can start making my own. Steven makes kefir and brought kefir grains to share. He didn't want to swap for sourdough. He's got teenagers, he explains; it's enough feeding and managing them.
Coolest of the cool was Tara Whitsitt herself, who shared her deep knowledge of food fermentation, a process she succinctly described as "when we work with the wild to allow bacteria and yeast to just go." Whitsitt, who's been on the road since October, 2013, pivoted easily to turn the potluck talk into a sauerkraut-making demonstration. She set up her station on a card table in the middle of the house, between the living room and the dining room, chopping the cabbage, massaging it with salt until it started to sweat and release water, and packing it and the brine into a wide-mouth jar. She added fennel, too, and some smoked onion she gets from a friend in exchange for sauerkraut.
"I do a lot of bartering with sauerkraut," she said.
The fennel-cabbage combo was a new one for her. She said she works with what she has on hand at each event or potluck, to keep her work fresh and interesting. "This is my 70th event. After 17 months, you start to feel like you've done everything."
Whitsitt loves sauerkraut, and kimchi, which she showed me how to make late Wednesday night, after the partygoers had left, but her latest obsession is tempeh. She told us it's a bean fermentation process from Indonesia, where the primary bacterial agent, Rhizopus oligosporus, occurs naturally, growing on the undersides of hibiscus leaves. The beans are mixed with Rhizopus spores and spread into a thin layer. The fermentation process requires a constant temperature of 86 degrees -- an easy temperature to maintain in balmy Indonesia -- for 24 to 36 hours. As the beans break down, they become matted together by mold. You can see the tiny white hairs of mycelium, looking like mortar between little bean bricks. The taste is earthy and meaty. Her tempeh -- made of adzuki beans, black beans, millet and sunflower seeds -- were a must-try at the potluck.
Parties -- especially potlucks -- are such a leap of faith. The lead-up to them is like Valentine's Day, 1969, Grafton Road Elementary School, worrying and wondering who's going to put a card in the little craft paper envelope I've got taped to the front of my desk. Is anybody going to come? And will I like them? And will they like me?
It doesn't take much to turn me into a seven-year-old.
Well, people came. They came with food, too, lots of delicious dishes. And they came with their enthusiasm and with their joy of living and eating well. It's amazing how food and a table to gather around can make friends out of utter strangers. I felt like I dropped another inch or two into the nest, into feeling at home.
Let's do it again soon!